A Spirit That Does Not Compromise: Capt. Humbert Versace

 

A Spirit that Does Not Compromise

by Michael Heisley

HUMBERT ROQUE VERSACE is honored on Panel 1E, Row 33 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

 

I first met Rocky Versace when we were young boys growing up in Alexandria, Va., in 1950. As young boys, we had arguments and even a few fights. Rocky always maintained his opinion and never relented. Over the years, from grade school through high school and college, our friendship matured and grew stronger. After graduation from college— Georgetown for me and West Point for Rocky—we corresponded by mail and telephone.

Rocky was posted first in the United States, then in South Korea. Later, he served two tours in Vietnam, back when the U.S. troops were primarily advisors.

On Rocky’s last night of leave before returning to Vietnam to complete his second tour of duty, he dined with me and my wife Agnes in our home. At dinner, Rocky informed us he was leaving the service after his second tour. He planned to become a priest in the Maryknoll Order and stay in Vietnam to work with orphanages for the children of Vietnam, whom he deeply loved. I promised to help him with his dream.

We parted, never to see each other again.

Months later, while living in Dallas, Texas, my wife and I learned from a television news report that Capt. Rocky Versace had been wounded and captured by the Viet Cong on Oct. 29, 1963. I will never forget that evening. I told Agnes, “I fear we will never see Rocky again. Rocky has a spirit that does not compromise. He will not bend or break. They will have to kill him.”

Over the next several years, Agnes and I prayed for his release and waited for news about Rocky. From time to time, we got vague reports about the Viet Cong marching him from village to village for propaganda purposes.

Finally, our worst fears were realized when we learned that Rocky had been executed on Sept. 26, 1965.

Rocky’s belief in God, his love of his country and his commitment to West Point’s code of Duty, Honor and Country had finally convinced his captors that they could not break him—they could only kill him.

Almost 40 years later, on a sunny day in Alexandria, Va., the Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated to the people of Alexandria who had died in Vietnam. At the center of the memorial is a statue of Rocky with his arms around two Vietnamese children.

Later that weekend, at a White House ceremony on July 8, 2002, my wife and I watched as President George W. Bush awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to our friend Rocky. It was the first time an Army POW had been awarded the nation's highest honor for actions in captivity.

I felt that, although his body was never recovered and still rested in some unknown, dark jungle clearing in the Mekong Delta, his spirit was at last home in Arlington National Cemetery, where a gravestone had been placed for him.

I erected a duplicate of Rocky’s Alexandria Vietnam Veterans Memorial statue in front of my home in St. Charles, Ill. It has the American flag flanked by the POW/MIA flag and the West Point flag. It is a symbol for me and all who visit my home. And, it is a tribute to Rocky and the men and women who gave their lives in service to their country. Every day, it reminds me of Rocky.

No day passes that I don’t look at that memorial and remember the man, the patriot and my great friend.

 

MICHAEL HEISLEY is the owner of the Memphis Grizzlies, and is a Chicago businessman involved in multiple business ventures. His family charitable foundation, the Heisley Family Foundation, is deeply involved in children’s charities and is a strong supporter of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.